Musical mission to boost morale

Operation Happy Note continues to send instruments to troops overseas Barb and Steve Baker ship free musical instruments at the rate of roughly 1.8 per day. As volunteer coordinators of the non-profit organization Operation Happy Note – for going on six years – the Bakers have tallied the gift of 3,500 guitars, mandolins, harmonicas, violins, horns of all kinds, keyboards, auto-harps, accordions, even bagpipes and kazoos to service men and women throughout the world. It started when Barb’s son Marte was stationed in Iraq in 2005. “His birthday was coming up and Steve suggested sending him a guitar along with a lesson pack.” At the time, the Bakers owned and operated a music store in Fergus Falls so they had a ready supply of guitars from which to choose. After receiving the guitar, Marte called. “Mom, can you send another guitar?” he asked. Two weeks later there was another request. At that point, Steve proposed having a fund raiser since they seem to have hit upon a popular plan: to help deployed troops fill their down time with music. In the years since sending that first guitar overseas, Operation Happy Note has become a non-profit, moved from the back room of the music store in Fergus Falls when the Bakers “retired,” and now headlines in rented commercial space at 28 East Main in Osakis. The Bakers have always lived in Alexandria but have shortened their commute by driving the seven miles to Osakis rather than 50 to Fergus Falls. “Osakis is a nice little town,” said Barb. “We moved here in January (2011) and had an open house in February,” she said of the chance to introduce themselves and their operation to the area residents. They’re so happy with the location, in fact, that they have a fundraising effort under way to buy the building which formerly housed the Osakis news office. In 2007, Operation Happy Note snowballed and took the Bakers on a wild ride. “We had a website, people were giving us used instruments and then we got a bigger website,” recalls Barb. “Then one day this guy walked in. Peter Slevin from the Washington Post. He’d been interviewing soldiers.” Slevin wrote about Operation Happy Note. When his article got out, NBC came calling; and the Reader’s Digest, Guideposts, Fox News, and others. Donations increased, too. “Volkswagen sent 250 electric guitars. A guy drove up the day before Thanksgiving with an anonymous donation of 385 guitars, both acoustic and electric with amps, gig bags and tuners,” remembers Barb. They were also getting 100 requests a day from soldiers who’d heard about the project and e-mailed or wrote letters from Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Egypt and other APOs and FPOs. Stories of the recipients came in, too. Stories that now fill a 6-inch thick scrap book. Like Sonny Hinchman, a pilot from southern Indiana who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq while working for a contractor just months after he retired from the Army. Hinchman completed two tours in Iraq with the Army and it was during one of these tours that he was sent an Operations Happy Note guitar. When his tour of duty ended, he passed his guitar on to his girlfriend’s son who was also in Iraq. He asked that it be passed on to the next soldier when he returned home. Hinchman went back to Iraq believing that his work protecting diplomats would help stabilize the country. Unfortunately his life ended there in 2009; but his story doesn’t. Hinchman’s sister e-mailed Operation Happy Note to ask for their assistance in a special project. She’s using some of the money she’s inherited from her brother to build a 64 bed orphanage in Haiti. She wanted a music room for the kids and wondered if the Bakers could assist in furnishing it with instruments. You never know when such connections might bear additional fruit. Recently Operation Happy Note had 98 guitars ready to send but the shipping would cost $2800. “I just got a check for $3000, from Sonny’s sister,” says Barb, amazed at the generosity of people who suffer their own grief. While Barb wonders who is playing Sonny’s guitar now, she knows that each instrument sent overseas has a unique story. Operation Happy Note has brushed up against celebrities and politicians, many of them generous with their time, fund raisers and donations. Plaques, certificates, commemorative flags, and guitars that have served their time and returned to the Bakers with autographs and messages line the walls of Operation Happy Note’s storefront. Personal letters, notes, printed e-mails and photos fill files. Yet the requests and the donations keep coming. “We’re already nation-wide,” says Barb, “but my goal is to grow. There’s never going to be a way to fill all the requests,” she says, holding a sheaf of messages. She knows she’s going to have to think bigger, get bolder and find some financiers with deeper pockets. Steve, who tends to be the quiet partner, works as a luthier and teaches guitar lessons. Barb works 20 hours a week at the Douglas County Hospital. With each of them anticipating 67 candles on upcoming birthday cakes, they know their non-profit will keep them active for years to come. “That’s pretty good for a project that started with one guitar,” Barb says with amazement. Learn more about Operation Happy Note at www.operationhappynote.com

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